The Ideal Gnome Expedition

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

What if the gnomes in your garden were freed from their boring, static lives, and allowed to go off on an adventure? Would they find excitement, or danger; would they be scared or thrilled?

Two garden gnomes, Mr Fisher and Mr Wheeler, find out in David Wood's delightful play for children The Ideal Gnome Expedition. Picking their way through a concrete cityscape, via alley-cats and streetlamps, a jungle for which they are altogether the wrong size, they meet all sorts of urban characters. But will they find their way back home?

The Ideal Gnome Expedition was first produced by the Liverpool Playhouse Company in December, 1980 before touring Britain in 1981.

The Insect Play

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Insect Play (or Ze života hmyzu in the Czech) is an unconventional and much-celebrated satire which tells the story of myriad insects and the multi-layered and complex society which binds them; its comical allegory serves illuminate the competing philosophies of life doing battle in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Writing in their translator’s introduction, Peter Majer and Cathy Porter point out that ‘the play’s visceral theatricality, playful language and wealth of strong acting parts make it a director’s dream, and it is one of the most performed of all Čapek’s stage creations in the English-speaking world . . . With their tiny eyes, their powerful jaws, their capacity to kill or suck dry, to be blown away or crushed, Čapek’s insects are repulsive yet human, and as they scurry effortlessly between the human and insect worlds they show human passions, instincts and vices, and the bloody lusts which make human intelligence hideous.'

The Insect Play was first performed in Prague in 1922.


Faber and Faber
Type: Text

An extraordinary tale of betrayal, murder, love and forgiveness, Gabriela Preissová's Její Pastorkyna (Her Stepdaughter) caused a scandal in Prague where it was first performed in the1890s. Despite worldwide acclaim as Jenufa, an opera by Leoš Janácek, the play has never before been staged in Britain.

Jenufa, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, premiered at the Arcola Theatre, London, in the Natural Perspective Theatre Company's debut production, in October 2007.

The Makropulos Case

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Makropulos Case (1922) [is] a tragic-comic fantasy about ageing and human mortality. There are many inspirations for this marvellous play: the Russian zoologist Professor Mechnikov’s tehories about the ageing process as a self-intoxication of the organis; Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh; the immortal monsters of Frankenstein and Dracula; the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and his explorations of free will and temporality.’ So say the translators of The Makropulos Case, Peter Majer and Cathy Porter, in their introduction to the anthology in which this translation was first published.

The Makropulos Case is an enduring story of the invention of a potion that will give its consumer eternal life. In typical Čapek style though, the elixir proves to be the undoing of those surrounding it, as the prospect of unlimited life reduces them to greed, secrecy and litigation.

The Makropolus Case was first performed in Prague in 1922.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A funny and surreal story of servitude and technology, R.U.R. was legendary Czech writer Karel Čapek’s first major work for the stage.

In their introduction to the play, translators Peter Majer and Cathy Porter write that Čapek’s ‘idiosyncratic nihilism found its earliest expression in his first large-scale stage drama, R.U.R., or Reason’s Universal Robots 1921. The Robot was the invention of Karel Čapek and his brother Josef, and the play is a gloriously dystopic science-fiction fantasy about them and the brave new world of the men who mass-produce them . . . Robots multiply, are bought and sold and gradually take over every aspect of human existence. As people grow idle and stop procreating, the Robots rebel and destroy almost the entire human race . . . R.U.R. was frequently performed in Europe and America throughout the 1920s, and the outrageous comedy of its central premise, its surrealistic visual effects and experimental use of space immediately caught the popular theatrical imagination.'

R.U.R or Rosumovi Umělí Roboti, was first performed in Prague in 1921.

The White Plague

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Unlike many other plays by Čapek, The White Plague is pervaded not by hope with a little nihilism, but with anguish and fear for what the future would hold. Written in the late 1930s, shortly before the Munich Agreement delivered much of Czechoslovakia into Nazi control, The White Plague tells the story of a dictatorship which is overcome by an illness it is powerless to control.

In their introduction, translators Peter Majer and Cathy Porter write: ‘The White Plague (1937) [is] a savage and anguished satire against fascist dictatorship. The action is set in an unnamed country and under its dictator, the Marshal, the population is poised for the final war which will conquer the world. Science, medicine and production are ruled by fiat, and dissent is ruthlessly suppressed. But people are dying by the thousand from a mysterious epidemic for which nobody knows the cure. The disease slays soldiers, rulers and workers alike, depleting the labour force and jeopardising production . . . A humanist by nature, Čapek struggled to understand the psychology of his time, joining the front line of journalists and intellectuals fighting for democracy and against the infamous Munich pact . . . But he was already being attacked by Czech and German fascists at public meetings and in the press, and The White Plague made him more enemies.'

The White Plague was first performed and published in Czech in 1937, the year before Čapek’s death at the age of 48.

In Bohemia, which in 1620 became part of the Austrian Empire, Czech theatre developed alongside German, seeking its own image and attempting to catch up with European developments. The National Theatre, built in Prague in 1881 by national subscription, came to embody the idea of national independence. Besides Prague, only Plzeň and Brno had permanent theatres, while in rural areas travelling troupes played. There were many active amateur societies. In general, theatre played an 'extra-artistic' role of a national, educational and political nature.

At the beginning of the twentieth century new stylistic trends – symbolism, impressionism, psychological drama – made their appearance. Jaroslav Kvapil, at the National Theatre from 1900 to 1918, represented these trends and became the founder of modern Czech stage direction. A follower of Reinhardt and Stanislavsky, his eclectic repertoire was dominated by Shakespeare, Ibsen and the Czech playwright Alois Jirásek. Kvapil also produced plays by other Czech authors (Viktor Dyk and Fráňa Šrámek), as well as foreign ones (e.g. Björnson, Chekhov, Claudel, Hauptmann, Maeterlinck). With outstanding actors such as Eduard Vojan, Marie Hübnerová and Hana Kvapilová, Kvapil created a stylistic unity that was not, however, to survive the First World War, when the symbolist expressionism of Karel Hugo Hilar (at the other major Prague theatre, the Municipal, from 1911 to 1920) became dominant. Hilar and Vlastislav Hofman, a pioneer of modern Czech stage design, became known for their dynamic productions with moments of extreme grotesqueness and poignant heroism, representing great ideas, social movements and strong instincts.

The birth of an independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 created favourable conditions for the development of theatre, which no longer had to take on the role of defender of national interests. In Prague and other cities (Olomouc, Ostrava, České Budějovice), repertory theatres were founded. Besides official municipal theatres there were a number of 'opposition theatres' with a socialist orientation and/or proletarian theatres (the Revolutionary Stage, the Socialist Stage, Dědrasbor and others). The National Theatre continued to predominate under Hilar (1921–35), who had abandoned his extreme style in renowned productions such as Hamlet, Oedipus Rex and Mourning Becomes Electra. Other prominent directors at municipal theatres were Karel Dostal, Jan Bor and Kvapil. During the 1920s Czech plays gained world renown, thanks to the Čapek brothers. Alongside some outstanding actors there was also a flourishing of stage design, with such practitioners as Josef Čapek, Bedřich Feuerstein and Antonin Heythum. The mid-1920s brought the avant-garde too, under the influence of Soviet theatre (Meyerhold, Tairov, Vakhtangov) and French drama, which was frequently staged (Jarry, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Breton). Small experimental theatres (the Liberated Theatre, Dada, the Modern Studio), grouped around young directors (Emil František Burian, Jiří Frejka, Jindřich Honzl) were seeking inspiration in poetry, dance, pantomime, the circus. They staged plays (e.g. by V. Vančura and V. Nezval) in which artistic opposition was combined with social opposition. By the 1930s they had attained significant positions in the Czech theatre. Frejka at the National Theatre (1930–45), with a group of young actors and designer František Tröster, made the classical repertoire very timely (Julius Caesar, Fuente Ovejuna, The Government Inspector). Burian in his theatre (called D-1933 to D-1944, depending on which year it was) developed his own social yet lyrical testimony to the times using music and highly original lighting and design effects (a system of combined projections). From 1929 to 1938 the Liberated Theatre changed into a satirical and anti-militaristic company which produced variety-type shows, written and played by Jiři Voskovec and Jan Werich; their intellectual clowning, accompanied by the jazz music of Jaroslav Ježek, became an extremely popular hallmark of the times.

Outside Prague there was the director Jan Škoda with designer Jan Sládek (in Ostrava), the director Oldřich Stibor and designer Josef Gabriel (in Olomouc), the director Viktor Šulc (Czech language ensemble, Bratislava) and others of international acclaim. The great majority of those who worked in both official and unofficial theatres united to defend democracy and freedom against fascist expansion. The significance of ideas increased and the themes of power and dictatorship reverberated (in e.g. Čapek's The White Disease, 1937, and The Mother, 1938).

Theatre continued even after Czechoslovakia ceased to exist (1938) and the Czech lands were occupied by Nazi Germany (1939–45), though many outstanding artists emigrated, or were forbidden to appear, arrested or executed. With the aid of allegories and the inventive staging of the classics, theatres attempted to deal with contemporary problems and strengthen national awareness. A number of semiamateur groups of young people were founded, strongly influenced by the prewar avant-garde, while productions of classical plays by Dostal and Frejka at the National Theatre continued to represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

After liberation, the theatre was proclaimed to be a national cultural institution, which was to cater to the popular masses. All private licences to operate theatres were abolished and all theatres became a part of the public realm. Travelling troupes were closed and regional repertory theatres were established on the basis of decentralization, creating an oversized network that was later slimmed down. An Academy of Performing Arts was founded as an institution of higher learning. After the communist victory in 1948, the theatre was expected to serve as a propaganda medium to promote socialism. Following the Soviet Union, so-called socialist realism became the predominant style from 1948 to 1953, and the simplified (and not properly understood) Stanislavsky method of acting was considered mandatory. Contemporary Czech plays were devoted to officially sanctioned subject matter, and modern plays from the West, considered the product of an alien and bourgeois ideology, were taboo. Theatres survived by playing the 'unproblematic' classics (Goldoni, Shakespeare's comedies). As direction and design were straitjacketed, the significance of the actor's interpretation increased. After criticism of Stalinism in the Soviet Union in 1956, cultural policy in Czechoslovakia became freer. Directors (Otomar Krejča, Alfréd Radok, Jaromir Pleskot), designers (Josef Svoboda) and playwrights (František Hrubín, Josef Topol, Pavel Kohout, František Pavlíček and Vradislav Blažek) strove for a more truthful and critical image of society's problems. Also, contacts with theatres abroad and with foreign playwrights became more regular. Gradually, the profile of different theatres became more individual. A number of small theatres at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s (in Prague: Semafor, the Theatre on the Balustrade, the Drama Club; in Liberec: the Y Studio) combined poetry, song, pantomime and puppetry to offer an authentic voice.

The 1960s represented a culmination of postwar development in the theatre, with great variety (Brechtian aesthetics, Chekhovian psychology, the strong influence of the Theatre of the Absurd), evident not only in staging methods (Krejča at the National Theatre and at his Theatre Behind the Gate) and the quality of direction (Radok, Jan Grossman, Jan Kačer), but in new plays (by Milan Kundera, Ladislav Smoček, Vaclav Havel).

Svoboda, creator of the famous Laterna Magika, used modern technology as an art medium and thus created one of the major branches of not only Czech, but world stage designs. Ladislav Fialka revived classical pantomime (under the influence of Marceau). The struggle of the individual against dehumanization gave Czech theatre civic and ethical values at a time when it was internationally influential.

The Soviet occupation in 1968 and the process of so-called 'normalization' which followed had a highly negative impact. Creative teams were broken up, outstanding artistic personalities lost their jobs and a number were denied the opportunity to work in the profession (some found work abroad). During the 1970s the focus of the Czech theatre moved to theatres outside large cities, where a number of 'un-normalized' theatrical people (Grossman, Kačer, Hynšt, Hajda) were able to continue their work, and where young people (Kříž, Engelova', Rajmont) had more of an opportunity. Attempts to force the theatre back into a propaganda mould proved unsuccessful, but the artistic quality and social commitment of the theatre suffered. A general period of decline was interrupted only by individual productions (by directors Schorm, Macháček, Pistorius) in various short-term projects and ad hoc circumstances. Pantomime came to the forefront; a so-called second, 'grotesque' wave appeared. Also, the puppet theatre (the Dragon, the Naïve Theatre) flourished, as did stage design. The authorities again carefully controlled the selection of plays. Interesting performances were produced by the second line of small, studio-type theatres, some of which started as amateur groups (Theatre on a String in Brno, the Ha Theatre in Prostějov, the Drama Studio in Ústí nad Labem). From the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s they created experimental theatre, which, because of its nonconformist content, increasingly contrasted with the hesitant ideas and rigidity typical of the permanent repertory or so-called 'stone' theatres in their grand buildings. It was from this milieu that K. Steigerwald, the most interesting playwright of the period, appeared.

Theatre workers played an important role in the 'velvet revolution' of 1989. They were the first to join the students' strike, opening the theatres for public gatherings and taking part in meetings in factories and villages throughout the country. However, after the fall of the communist regime the theatre's standing changed completely. The era of a ruling state ideology had come to an end; but so had the time when the entire expenses of the theatres could be paid out of the state budget. Dozens of new theatre groups emerged in the new liberal conditions, but a number of existing theatres ceased to exist. The financial pressure of the free market and a drop in attendances at the beginning of the 1990s fostered a trend towards commercialization. At the same time, new groups of an alternative orientation established themselves. Representatives of a new generation of directors, notably Petr Lébl, Vladimir Morávek and J. A. Pitínský, brought into the Czech theatre a response to postmodernism and a highly aesthetic conceptual approach.

from Eva Šormová, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).